With the NBA Draft hours away it made me think about the life and career of an NBA GM and this is what I came up with.
Being a general manager of an NBA team is something that can be extremely rewarding as well as mind-numbingly challenging at the same time. At first glance it seems like something everybody can do, right? We all play fantasy sports. We know the tricks of the trade. As long as you gather up a ton of talented players you’ll eventually win, right? I mean, we just saw Lebron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh join forces to win an NBA Championship for the Miami Heat. The formula seems simple. You combine talent, throw in a few guys who can hit three point shots and sprinkle in a few guys that do all the dirty work (rebounding, steals, drawing offensive fouls etc…) and presto, championship.
Danny Ainge was considered a bum in Boston before he was able to land Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. Now he’s a genius who orchestrated a championship team. Mitch Kupchak was nearly run out of LA before he convinced Memphis to let go of Pau Gasol for his younger, out of shape, (at the time) brother. Now, two titles later, they sing symphonies about his awesomeness.
Still, that doesn’t always mean that throwing money at players solves the problem. There have been dozens of other teams who failed just as loudly as the teams mentioned earlier succeeded. The Lakers (yep, they fail too) tried adding Gary Payton and Karl Malone in 2004 in order to squeeze out one final ring before that meth lab in Hollywood finally blew up. The Rockets tried to overcompensate for the reemergence of Michael Jordan in 1996 by bringing in Charles Barkley. In both cases the end result was a trip home without a trophy in sight.
OK, so if that plan isn’t fool proof then what is? Oh, right the draft. That’s right. All a GM needs to do is draft a super talented teenager and in a few years it’ll be considered a success.
The problem is, just because you made a good pick on draft day it doesn’t mean it will continue to smell like roses year after year. Your superstar of the future could suffer a devastating knee injury. (Portland twice) The Ownership could consistently overrule the opinions of the GM. (Sacramento) Players could divide the locker room to the point of a near mutiny. (Lakers w/ Kobe and Shaq) Another team could swoop in and take away that young gem you polished for years (Cleveland, Memphis, Minnesota etc…) or, in the worst case scenario, the guy you had such high hopes for suddenly dies. (Boston twice) That doesn't even take into account that every year there seems to be half a dozen veterans that go to loaded teams just to win a title. Whatever the case may be, it’s never as easy as it seems in the beginning.
Still, that doesn’t mean it never works out for the David’s of the world. Sometimes you strike gold. Sometimes your team captures lightning in a bottle. Sometimes, the Sacramento Kings create a team that makes it to game seven of the 2002 Western Conference Finals. Sometimes, you get a team in Oklahoma City that makes it to the 2012 NBA Finals and sometimes you get a dynasty in San Antonio.
In order to compete for the title you need three things to happen. (In reality you need more than three but these three seem like the most important.)
First, you need to draft an elite superstar high in the draft. It doesn’t matter where you get him; just make sure that he somehow falls in your lap.
Second, you have to pray to God that, after he’s played a few years in your small town that he wants to stay, instead of taking his talents elsewhere.
Finally, if prayer one and prayer two are answered you have to surround him with two or three other players that are about 2/3 as talented as him. If you can do all that, and avoid the injury bug, you’ve got a shot.
Is it a rock solid plan? No, but San Antonio, and to a small degree Portland and Utah both showed that just because the big boys have most of the toys, doesn't mean they rule the world.
So there seems to be two ways to build a team. Option one is to build a team through the draft and continue to stockpile good talent until the pieces create something special. Option two is to basically see what option one did and steal their guys. So who’s the better GM? Is it the guy who accumulated the talent but didn't always win the title or the guys who take them from the small town and win a title? Is it the Kings in 2002 or the Heat in 2012?
If Miami or Boston or whoever did decide to take your star, does that make you a bad GM when your team dives head first in an empty pool the next year? Does it make the GM is the big city better because his beachfront property outshines your small town charm? It all depends on who you ask and when you ask. Is it the team in the bigger market because he got the marquis guy? Is it the guy who started with nothing and built something successful?
The final answer is probably somewhere in between and that’s what makes sports so sweet and what makes a GM’s job so hard. Sometimes the best laid plans can blow up the loudest, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to stop believing in them. Your GM may not be the most liked guy in the league but understand that he’s already playing with a stacked deck.